Restrictive Zoning Contributes to the Rising Affordability Problem

I really don’t care if you want to zone your own land, but don’t tell me to zone my land

By Marc Liechti

“If you don’t own it, don’t zone it” That’s what most Montanans would have said only a few years ago. Look at us now, with all the new residence in some communities suddenly these mostly very progressive liberals are here to put their stamp on it or are at least try to.

Zoning was typically a municipal law but has in the last years spread more and more into county property as well. Some counties have county wide “zoning,” some have implemented density maps or other ways to exclude some uses and to control other people’s land.

I really don’t care if you want to zone your own land, but don’t tell me (unless you own it) to zone my land. The next thing they tell you, oh don’t worry you are grandfathered in (especially after-the-fact zoning). Not so fast. You may be OK now, maybe you are getting older and want to add to the home or need to run a business out of the home. Maybe you want a taller fence or a new retaining wall close to the property line. After your existing and completed neighborhood is zoned your existing structure could be a non-conforming use and the next time you try to change it you can’t, because you can’t expand the non-conforming use.

Without zoning you just start your project, but with zoning you need to make sure you comply, or your friendly neighbor may turn you in, and suddenly you realize I need to spend money on a consultant, on county fees or maybe even fines. After all that they may even tell you that you can’t do what you want, or you need to change your plans all together.

I have worked with many homeowners and business owners over the years, and all is usually fine until they realize the next potential buyer will only buy the property if it allows a certain use. And you don’t get your change approved and now you lose your buyer.

The next negative on zoning is that while zoning can help achieve valuable social goals, excessively restrictive zoning contributes to the rising affordability problem. Some zoning regulations nevertheless price certain demographics out of neighborhoods by forbidding multifamily dwellings, which are more affordable to low- or middle-income individuals. When the government artificially separates land uses and forbids building certain kinds of residences in entire districts, it restricts the supply of housing and increases the cost of the land, and the price of housing reflects those restrictions.

When the government has the authority to restrict building and development, established residents of all income levels will use that power to protect their home value.

Consider minimum lot sizes, which require developers to set aside a certain amount of land for each home. These rules are common in single-family zoning districts, where lot size is the main driver of costs. Although they serve a safety function in rural areas – where, for example, sewer hookups may be unavailable – these rules serve no such purpose in most cities and suburbs. We see that minimum lot sizes are a major culprit for rising housing costs.

Marc Liechti